Love doesn’t talk about itself. It doesn’t brag or boast or chide. It just moves us a little, here and there. We get a sense that something is off and with it a sense of what would be corrective. That’s love, as I am using the word “love.” It’s natural; it’s inherent. We don’t have to do anything but give attention and there it is, operating, flowing, coming forth through us, being itself, extending itself.
Yet a lot of what we do obstructs the operation of love. Our activity, however well-intentioned, is like sand in the gears. Love is a clear trail through the forest and along come some drunken lumberjacks who think they’ll make it better and saw down a bunch of trees that then block the trail. We mean well but we don’t see that we don’t need to do anything. We don’t see that it’s all being done; us, too.
This happens because of an abiding confusion about what we are. We think we’re separate from the world; we think our living is “ours.” It’s not but we can see it that way. This confusion, too, is natural. Confusion isn’t criminal; it isn’t evil. If I’m teaching and my students are confused, I don’t punish them. I refine my teaching; I go on teaching. If I’m a parent and my kids are confused, I don’t trade them in for new kids. I refine my parenting; I go on parenting. I keep learning to teach better and I keep teaching.
We are confused about the fundamentals, but we can be un-confused. Love will unconfuse us, if we get out of its way. Will we take love as our teacher?
Again, when I use the word “love” I am not pointing at things like soul-mates or sex partners or husbands and wives or loyal dogs or inspiring poets. I am not pointing to a feeling that one has for a person, pet, place or practice. It is more like I am pointing to a law or a pattern. Love is what makes flowers grow; love is makes maple syrup sweet to our tongues. Love is what extends itself; love and life are not separate but conjoined. They are one movement, one flow.
Relating love to life – to the ongoing nature of life, the ongoing begetting of life – can drive a lot of folks around the bend. Botany follows natural laws like germination and photosynthesis. A seed does not be come a violet because of God’s will but because it evolved to respond a certain way to certain conditions. Violets are natural results of violet seeds set in soil and subject to requisite sunlight and rainfall. Stop trying to spiritualize everything.
Well, I agree. I do find it more helpful in some instances to refer to God’s will as photosynthesis. Or entropy. Or happiness. Language is malleable and constructive. There are lots of ways for love to make itself clear, and not all of them require use of the word “love.” After all, violets don’t talk about photosynthesis. Or violets.
But this does not relieve us of the obligation to use language carefully and consistently. The domain of botany has a language; it is a kind of violence, a kind of injustice, to demand it conform to the language of another domain. And it is also a kind of violence or injustice to rank domains – to say that the domain of biology is better or more important than the domain of theology or vice-versa. In my experience, science expands the experience of wonder and joy. Love includes it and is included in it. Love has its own order and my preferences have surprisingly little to do with it. Why not see this? Why not learn from it?
I said earlier that love is akin to a law or a pattern that brings forth life. That is, love begets love. It brings itself forth. And that bringing forth can be noticed: it can be attended. It is intelligent and responsive. When I say it is “intelligent,” I don’t mean in the sense of quantitative abilities (like those purportedly measured by IQ tests) but rather in the sense of qualitative potentials that we all possess equally. We don’t have to go to school to learn how to hug and comfort someone who is sad or hurt. We don’t need to a teacher to know that holding hands is a sweetness. When we make space for this free flow of love, we are happier, and love expands accordingly. It becomes vaster than the cosmos. It allows us to function fully and creatively. There is nothing it can’t do if we let it.
So here I am like (though hardly precisely like) John Lennon and Yoko Ono singing “all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Just give attention to love, the domains in which it appears, the language it yearns for as its own expression. What happens when we do this? What kind of teacher is love? What are its lessons? What classroom is given to its students? Find out!
I have been reflecting for the past week or so on the difference between asking why and asking how, especially as the distinction relates to our various beliefs, especially those we might label “spiritual.”
What are the effects of asking one question rather than another?
Over the past twenty years or so, I have become a fairly competent bread baker. I have read a number of classic texts on baking bread, experimented with dozens of recipes, dialogued with other bakers and made a lot of bread. Nobody would confuse me with an expert or an artisan, but the loaves I make are always eaten quickly. Nobody complains.
Say that you are interested in baking bread. You want to adopt a baking practice of your own. You want to talk to me about my experience. Let’s imagine you can ask me only one of the following two questions:
1. Why do you bake bread?
2. How do you bake bread?
Which would you ask? Why?
The suggestion here is not that one question is better or worse than the other, or that one answer is absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong. The suggestion is merely that the two questions yield vastly different types of answers, and noticing the difference matters.
If you ask the first question, we will have a long discussion about the women who raised me (mothers, grandmothers, and one aunt), 1970s hippies in western Massachusetts, especially the rural hilltowns where I grew up, and Zen. Absent the confluence of those influences then, I would not bake bread now. Ours would be a far-ranging conversation, equal parts biography, social commentary and half-assed eastern theology.
If you ask me the second question, I will give you my detailed basic recipe including ingredients and steps, and share with you the formal recipes from which that formula has been adapted. The dialogue will be pragmatic and concrete, befitting, perhaps, the craft of baking bread.
I don’t know which answer would be more helpful to you. It depends, really, on where you are at in the learning process, how committed you are and a host of other variables I can’t even imagine. That is why I don’t say one question is more valuable than other; they are different. Their value is subjective and contingent.
What happens if we turn this analysis in the direction of spirituality?
Instead of Sean baking bread, say instead we are talking about Sean yoking A Course in Miracles to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices.
What happens when we ask: why do you believe that ACIM can be helpfully yoked to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices?
What happens when we ask: how do you believe that ACIM can be helpfully yoked to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices?
If you try this on your own – I mean really stop reading for an hour or so and look into this on your own – what happens? Think of a fundamental belief you hold and then ask yourself: How do I believe this?
I happen to find “why” questions relatively easy. I can go deeper faster; I don’t lose my self doing so. Thus, when I started to ask “how” questions, things felt . . . unstable, untenable There was a sense of having reached that part of the map that reads “here there be dragons.”
Naturally, others have a different perspective. Again, the point is not to claim the status of right or wrong here but simply to explore the nature of our thinking in order to get closer to its source, and to better understand its mechanics so that we can – in ACIM terms – look at the problem where the problem actually is.
For a while, faced with “how” questions, I tried to pretend they were just poorly-worded variants of “why” questions. The speed with which we leap back to familiar interior ground – often without noticing we are doing so – is remarkable. I’d pose a “how” question and answer with “why am I asking that question” and actually believe I was getting somewhere.
Here is the thing. For me, “how” prompts answers that are – not unlike in the bread-baking example – more pragmatic and concrete than the abstract and argumentative nature of answers to “why” questions.
“How” questions move me into the body and into the world; they move me out of idealizing bread and into both recipe and ingredients. It’s the difference between musing on the nature and evolution of transportation and actually popping the hood of a car to see how it works and actually make it go.
Husserlian bracketing was incredibly helpful with this step: it allowed me to set aside certain questions in order to focus on experience as experience. Later I began to try and sort through the various ways of describing what was happening (as a prelude to responding to, or being in dialogue with, what was happening), and this led me away from A Course in Miracles specifically and religion/spirituality generally and towards material that, while its proponents tend to be frighteningly smart and educated, is actually (for me) much more straightforward.
Take, for example, this comment by Amanda Gefter, in a comment thread attending her essay “Cosmic Solipsism.”
. . . while common sense would suggest that we all live in a single universe and that different observers’ perspectives are merely different descriptions of one and the same reality, the latest advances in theoretical physics suggest otherwise. That is, we can assume . . . that there is one single reality occupied by several observers, but in doing so we actually violate the laws of physics (we clone information, for instance). Put another way, the laws of physics only make sense within a single reference frame at a time. This, to me, is both shocking and profound.
“Shocking and profound” is one way to put it. Another is to admit to a full-fledged existential crisis. Gefter again:
Sure, there are things like shadows and rainbows that only exist in a given reference frame, we thought, but there also other things, real things, like tables and chairs, stars and galaxies, things that exist out there, in the universe, the ontological furniture in the common room of existence. Only now we’ve discovered that the common room is empty. There’s nothing out there. The common room — the universe — doesn’t exist. You’re left with a splintered, illusory, solipsistic reality . . .
Yet oddly – at least for me – once you’re out there in the “splintered, illustory, solipsistic reality,” or once you’ve adapted to being out there, you notice that while the nature of your experience is different, its content is . . . more or less the same. You keep on living, and your living is not so unlike what it was before you stumbled into the empty common room.
Gefter characterizes her own experience of this reality as follows:
My mind is splintered, duplicated, repeated, cast out into universe after universe where it will live all these invisible lives, lives I will never know, a silent echo, and I’ll just be sitting here, in my own solitary world, straining to hear.
For me, it is closer to how Humberto Maturana sees it in his book The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love.” Maturana proposes a “relational space transcending the molecular dynamics that make it possible.”
And we human beings do so in the unity of body and mind through the integration of our emotions and our doings as we live our existence of loving languaging relational-reflective beings, conscious of the nature of our humanness in the deep desire of an ethical coexistence.
It has not stopped mattering to me – exciting me, inspiring me, inflaming me – that however deep the isolation, however terrifying the fractures – love is literally always still there, still functioning as a sort of hefted lantern. It’s like saying the common room can’t be empty because . . . I’m there. And I’m talking to you from within it so . . . perhaps you are there, too, somehow, in a Maturanan “relational space” transcending the banal ontology implied by physics.
I think thinking this way moves us somewhat into the domain of what Emily Dickinson was getting at with her famous poem “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” Whenever I teach it, I literally fall to my knees. Sometimes I prostrate myself. The students laugh but not nervously; they know my worship is not faked.
In the poem, Dickinson notices how when you take away the light suddenly, our eyes adjust slowly to the resultant darkness. We stumble a little, but as our vision clarifies to the circumstances, we “meet the Road – erect.”
And so of larger – Darknesses –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –
The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –
Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.
How shall we learn to see, you and I?
For me, the move towards “how” has instantiated new ways of seeing experience – or experiencing, if you like, or, to adopt the Dickinsonian mode, learning to see experience – that seem to naturally beget greater degrees of happiness. The darkness does seem to alter, or perhaps we are meant somehow to dwell in uncertainty, and recognizing this allows us to be calmer, quieter, gentler, mellower . . .
Life, it seems, does seem to step “almost straight.” And it does so naturally.
Dickinson again, in another poem from approximately the same time period:
Heaven is so far of the Mind
That were the Mind dissolved –
The Site – of it – by Architect
Could not again be proved –
‘Tis Vast – as our Capacity –
As fair – as our idea –
To Him of adequate desire
No further ’tis, than Here –
To which I can only cry out: but how Emily? But how?
There is always a context that is loving. Whatever is happening can be both perceived and understood in terms of love. The work of being human is to clarify our perception and understanding in order to bring forth that love, which inures to our collective benefit.
The living that we do often involves pain: we step on a nail, or the car breaks down and our phone isn’t charged, or someone we love deeply dies. Earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns and serial killers pose statistically rare but not theoretical threats. Patterns ranging from alcoholism to depression to longstanding estrangements often wreak havoc on our families and communities.
It seems easy to see a way in which one ought to live in at least a modestly defensive crouch. It seems reasonable to dismiss as naive any suggestion that we can or ought to be happy even in moments of living that are painful.
However, there is a way to live that does not involve an adversarial relationship with grief, scarcity, loss, fear, guilt and so forth. It is to simply give attention to our living as we live, and to notice in particular the way in which love is natural and expressive and present. It turns out that we bring forth love not by invention or effort but by seeing the blocks which impede its free passage. It’s here; our work is to see it in its hereness.
Our search for a loving context takes place in the context of “the other.” “The other” is any person, place, object or idea that we experience as “not-me.” It’s the neighbor who runs his leaf blower during our meditation practice, the rain that falls on our birthday picnic, the cancer cells that overtake the body of our beloved.
Thich Nhat Hanh, whose expression of Buddhism is exquisitely clear and coherent, points out that “when another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
We can gently extend this observation to our own self, since we are also inevitably “the other.” Suffering – be it because of an annoying neighbor, a ruined relationship or death itself – is a cry for help.
Here I am thinking of “cry for help” as a plea to be rewelcomed – regathered, reclaimed – into the family of the living. To be held as an equal, not as an oddity or an error, not as “less-than” in some way.
That is, when I experience suffering, I don’t actually need you to explain or correct or minimize or my suffering. Rather, I need you to reaffirm my fundamental equality with you – the radical sameness which is the fundament of our oneness, the community that we are, the unity. The form this affirmation takes will vary but its meaning never does: “you and I are the same, and your suffering is my suffering, and I love you in order to remember I am loved as well.”
A Course in Miracles frames the issue this way. Whatever we experience, be it “a tiny stab of pain, a little worldly pleasure, and the throes of death itself are but a single sound; a call for healing, and a plaintive cry for help within a world of misery” (T-27.VI.6:6).
Therefore, our work as students, is simply to “see forgiveness as the natural reaction to distress that rests on error, and thus calls for help” (T-30.VI.2:7).
Thus, I suggest that our work – what I sometimes call giving attention, or bringing forth love – is to seek in all that occurs a loving context. And it is work. It takes attention, intention, and practice. It is the deliberate offering of love to all beings – maple trees, cancer cells, human beings, elephants, the sea shells and the light of distant stars . . .
Thich Nhat Hanh again.
Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth . . . This is the real message of love.
This love – and the work it necessitates in me – is often clearest in my role as a teacher. Students appear in a wide variety of fearful guilty postures: they are angry, smug, brash, aggressive, timid, indifferent, confused, stubborn . . . In time – years of time – I began to perceive how everything that appeared in these women and men arose from fear, which was simply the absence of love, and so my ability to respond to them clarified accordingly. How could it not?
When I am faced with a cry for love, I respond with love, because that is my nature – I am, as you are, homo sapiens amans. And when love is the focus, the form the expression of the need for love and the response to the need for love takes no longer make demands of my energy or attention.
It is like if I am tired and need to go upstairs to lay down in bed and sleep. I don’t look for an elevator that isn’t there. I don’t rearrange all the furniture in the house to accommodate the needs of the moment. I don’t lament my inability to levitate. I don’t pretend I live in a one-story house.
I walk to the stairs and climb them.
So practice love by seeking a loving context. Whatever occurs, whatever happens, whatever appears, whatever arises, there is in it a context of love. By seeking it, you bring it forth, and by bringing it forth, you heal yourself and the other and the world which is your shared reality. Nothing else becomes you.
We have to know what it means to know the love of Jesus. We cannot love like Jesus if we are not intimately aware of what it means to be loved by Jesus.
So we ask ourselves: Do I know the unconditional whole-hearted love of Jesus?
This is a simple question but it can be hard to answer. Most of us do not live as if we are loved unconditionally by anyone, let alone Jesus. We do not live as if our sole function is to extend love through forgiveness to all our brothers and sisters.
Instead, we live in a state of confusion. Sometimes we are happy but our happiness is fleeting. Sorrow seems always at hand. We fluster easily. We get distracted easily. We are guilty one moment and fearful the next.
It is like we are at the wrong dance hall. Or it’s the right dance hall but we’re dancing with the wrong partner. Or we’re dancing with the right partner but we’ve forgotten the steps to the dance. Or . . .
Suffering, it seems, is the measure of our lives.
Have you ever spent time with a child who knows that their parents love them unconditionally? They are so happy and secure! It is always a joy to be around these little people, because their happiness radiates outward, like sunlight through a prism. It asks nothing of us. It is such a blessing.
In the presence of true love freely extended, we remember that our true nature is loving. We remember that in love our living is made clear and simple and direct. We remember that love is the fundament, the foundation, of being.
But we forget this. Over and over we forget it. Why?
We forget because we focus on the second part of the new commandment given by Jesus. We give attention to how we are trying to love one another. We watch ourselves as from a distance, evaluating and judging. Am I doing it right? Is so-and-so doing it better than me? We fall short and vow to improve. We improve and congratulate ourselves on “our” success.
It becomes a ritual that revolves around our own self. Our brothers and sisters become players in the drama of our personal enlightenment.
That is not love.
What are we to do then?
The suggestions is that we focus on our present-moment experience of being unconditionally loved by Jesus.
It feels selfish to give attention to this seemingly personal experience of being loved by Jesus. It feels arrogant to assume such an important figure would be so devoted to us. Perhaps it feels a little silly. We are sophisticated people, after all. We know that all this talk about God and Jesus and Heaven are just metaphors.
But it’s worth asking: However we frame it, how is our refusal to look at Jesus’ unconditional love for us going? Is it working? Are we happy? Are we making others happy?
We should be honest about answering these questions. If the answer is no, then let’s say it and see what happens next. If we don’t know the love of Jesus or we aren’t sure we know it, then we should say so.
If our own efforts to bring forth love and peace, and our own understanding of those efforts are not making us happy and creative, and are not bringing forth love and peace, then perhaps there is another way.
And perhaps that way has already been given to us.
In you there is no separation, and no substitute can keep you from your brother and sister. Your reality was God’s creation, and has no substitute. You are so firmly joined in truth that only God is there (T-18.I.10:1-3).
A Course in Miracles suggests that if we want to experience the unconditional love of Jesus, then we should give attention to our relationships with one another. Not from a space of judgment or analysis. Not from the distance made by our belief in our specialness.
Rather, we should simply attend who is here with us in the world, and how they are with us, quietly and nondramatically responding to their needs, keeping in mind that of ourselves we do nothing but in God all things are already finished.
A great love – a great peace – is already among us awaiting only our invitation to flood the world with love and light. Our “invitation” is simply to stand aside so as not to impede this grace-filled manifestation. Nothing else is required; nothing else could be required.
To love like Jesus – which is to give all to all, without expectation of return – we must allow ourselves to remember the unconditional love of Jesus which is here for us now. To remember that love is to feel that love which in turn naturally extends that love. There is nothing else to do, and no one else to do it.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for making this so clear to me.
I don’t see it quite so often anymore, but for a time folks would pose this question: what would Jesus do?
I think it’s a poor question on several counts, though I understand the folks asking it had good intentions, and certainly in some instances, asking and answering that question, brought about desirable results. But still.
I’m not sure my proposed alternative – what would a maple tree do? – is any better, but I do think it might nudge our thinking in interesting directions, which in turn might prove helpful in terms of the world we bring forth.
Anytime someone says “Jesus” it is prudent to ask what they mean. It is one of the more complicated pair of syllables one can utter. When it is said, is what is meant the historical Jesus? The Jewish peasant who was a follower of John the Baptist, assumed and transformed his teacher’s ministry for several years, and then was executed by the Romans?
To say one is going to do what that Jesus did is not easy because we don’t really know what he did. That is, constructing a rational narrative for that man’s life is a matter of informed (to greater and lesser degrees) conjecture because there is so little evidence with which to work and all of it is deeply biased.
Almost inevitably, when we talk about Jesus then we are really talking about our own political and cultural interests and agendas now.
There is nothing wrong with talking about political and cultural ideals and projects, but to assume that the historical Jesus would be on board with them is a largely unjustified leap.
Folks might also be referring to the Jesus of scripture. But that Jesus is an idealized (as in “existing in imagination or idea,” not “the best” or “perfect”) Jesus. It is Jesus according to an author or authors who had specific goals and constructed a Jesus that furthered their goals. (Hence the generous variation in the Pauline epistles). Since scripture does not have one author but many, there are many Jesuses in the New Testament, and even more in the various communities that have evolved in response to its scriptural variegation.
That Jesus – because it is an idea – can be put to literally any end one likes and so more or less ceases to function in any meaningful way. Jesus opposes the death penalty! Jesus supports the death penalty for cop-killers! And so forth.
Critically, nobody can admit that the scriptural Jesus is merely an idealized Jesus – they always claim it is the true historical Jesus. Why? Because absent that embodied authority, their position becomes merely one among many, and not the right or true position.
There is a lesson in that for those of us still working through what it means to be a body or a spirit or a spirit in a body or a body with a spirit . . .
One can see this dynamic at play in the community of A Course in Miracles as well. This Jesus also functions in an idealized way – rewriting traditional Christian concepts like forgiveness and atonement (though not quite as radically as Ken Wapnick and others proposed), indulging nonduality, et cetera – and is also the historical Jesus. Indeed, in the creation stories that surround the scribing of the ACIM material, Helen is positioned as having been one of Jesus’s followers in a previous life.
In other words, when somebody asks “what would Jesus do?” it is always code for “what do I want to do in this situation?” Using Jesus is just a way of blessing off on our preferences, of implying that what we do is right or true or The Way. And while sometimes this produces happy results – feeding the poor, visiting the imprisoned – it can also produce unhappy results like discrimination and other forms of violence.
Is my suggestion – what would a maple tree do? – any better?
Jesus was a human observer whose range of activity – both mental and physical – approximately mirrors our own. He could lay a hand on the sick. He could lecture a crowd. He could eat bread and drink wine. He could go for a walk or kneel to pray or draw in the sand.
A maple tree does not do those things. It can’t. Thus, to compare ourselves to a maple tree is to fundamentally reframe our idea of what it means to act and think. It moves us out of the familiar “human” range and into another range.
Maple trees do not move. They don’t travel. That means that what happens, happens. When a hurricane comes, they can’t move to another town. If somebody comes by with an ax, they can’t hide. They can’t fight back. If a squirrel decides to live in their branches, they can’t say “I’d rather save that space for a chickadee.”
Maple trees don’t foliate in winter. Tough luck for them if they’d like to. In fall their foliage dies in lovely reds, yellows and oranges. Tough luck for them if they want to try blue, purple and silver. In spring, they produce a sweet sap. Tough luck for them if they’d rather produce beer. Or just take a break from sap-production altogether.
Do you see the trend emerging here?
In our human observing, maple trees are essentially passive. Their relationship to their environment – their way of living in a world – is one of acceptance. What happens, happens. Their ability to actively shape is muted. They don’t have dramatic powers of resistance. If an evil man who has just slaughtered a thousand men sits beneath a maple tree, he will enjoy the same cool shade as a virtuous woman who just midwifed a baby would.
Is the challenge the maple tree poses becoming clear?
Maple trees need sustenance to live; in that sense, they have appetites. Yet they don’t take more rain or sunlight than is given to them. The rain that is given is what they receive. The sunlight that is given is what they receive. The soil is the soil; they don’t shop for a replacement.
Is the discipline the maple tree demands becoming clear?
So when we are faced with a crisis – when we would call on the model of Jesus to help us choose how to act – what happens when we call instead on a maple tree?
I think – that is, it seems to me in this wordy and meandering way of living – that maple trees counsel acceptance, patience, and tolerance. They would counsel these practices to a radical (a demanding and unfamiliar) degree.
Yet we are not maple trees! If a tiger is bearing down on us, we should by all means move. But maybe we should also not adopt a policy of killing or containing all tigers because they are incredibly efficient carnivorous killers.
If we are hungry, then we should eat. But maybe also opt for food that was grown in a sustainable way, the value of which is measured not only in its cost at the grocery store. Maybe align our appetite with justice and love: farmers and homesteaders who are thinking not only of economic bottom lines but also ecological wholeness.
We are not maple trees – but we are not Jesus either! We are just the human observer that we are, doing our living in coordinated ways, with other human and animal and plant and mineral observers. Together we bring forth a world. The question is always what world shall we bring forth? Since love is the foundation of our being – the pliant nutritious loam of our shared existence – what actions and coordinations most probably and efficiently and sustainably bring love forth?
Jesus is okay but confusing to the point of distraction. So maybe let Jesus go on that account. At least see what happens when you do. Maybe become the disciple of maple trees. Maybe find out what a maple tree does in the domain of its experience and then – to the full reach of your own being – do the same in the domain of your own.
We might say that practical answers are important according to context.
For example, I want to bake bread and make soup for dinner.
It helps that there are bread and soup recipes. It helps there is a coop nearby that sells vegetables, flour, herbs and spices. It helps that I have homemade bags in which to store what I buy.
The recipes, the coop, and the bags are all made by people. People used language and engineering and design plans to put these things together and then sustain and share them.
In our home, we put a lot of thought into gardening and animals. We think about fencing, pastures, veggie rotation, when to plant and when to harvest, how to better age compost, putting food up, bartering with neighbors . . .
This sort of rational informed thinking and planning is very useful for gardening and creating a safe, local, sustainable food supply.
Is it as useful for awakening? Or enlightenment? Encountering nondual experience? Whatever word or phrase we want to use?
If we agree that there are many paths up the mountain, then one of them must be the way of rigorous scholarship, intellectual effort and rational thinking. That is, one of the ways up the mountain is the same as the one that allows us to make and sustain a homestead.
But in going up the mountain this way, we have to take care not to disparage paths that are characterized less by reason and more by, say, devotion. Entering into personal relationships with idealized Christs, writing Rumi-like paeans to the Goddess, worshiping on our knees, and so forth.
There are folks for whom that kind of approach to spirituality works. I don’t want to ignore or otherwise denigrate it by pretending my way is superior.
If all paths lead to the summit, then all we can say of a given path is that it is effective relative to our perspective. Because we want all being to have the same freedom we have, we must recognize that other folks will choose other paths, and those paths will be effective relative to their perspective.
Yet even as we take these varying paths, we are on the same mountain, and our passing-through affects all of us.
Our garden is not separate from other gardens in the area. For example, by including many flowers, we nurture local bee populations, which strengthens other gardens (as they, in turn, strengthen ours). By composting literally everything that can be composted, we minimize waste (and waste removal costs and energy) and build up the soil for the gardeners and homesteaders who will come after us.
In a similar way, our commitment to growing and raising food on our homestead, supplementing that production through a network of local farmers and homesteaders, and shopping locally for the balance, ripples in non-trivial ways across local, regional, national and global economies.
We do the work we are doing, with the understanding that its effects do not end with whatever limits we impose on our collective human experience.
In a sense, I want all people to be as thoughtful as is possible with respect to conserving and nurturing natural resources. Being aware of how we consume seems to make the world safer and more productive for all lives. But the way in which folks do this – their readiness, their willingness, their access (to land, cooperatives, income et cetera) is not uniform. Love obligates us to see and honor this.
So in all things we do what we can. A reasonable goal seems to be to make our doings as coherent and loving as possible. This is true for our so-called spiritual practice as well. Give attention to it. What works? What doesn’t? What do you wish would work but can’t seem to make work? What issues keep coming back? Who is helpful in your process? How do you define “helpful?” and so forth.
We are already awake. Nonduality is the ground of our being. But distractions abound. Sometimes rather than walk our path we defend it. Or try to force others to walk it. Sometimes we close our eyes and then complain that we can’t see. Sometimes we are content with what is given. There is no law that says you have to climb a mountain, or go all the way to the summit. It’s okay to not worry and be happy. It really is.
Most of what distracts us goes away naturally when we slow down and respond to life as it appears without making a big deal of it. In a sense, one comes to the realization that not all mysteries have to solved. Some of them we can just enjoy.
In a sense, the work is simply to not wish that life be other than it is, at this moment. That sounds easy but it is actually very hard. If we look closely, we will see that we are in a state of apparently perpetual resistance to life. We compare it to past iterations and find it wanting, we dream of better manifestations going forward . . .
This is essentially a mechanical process to which we acquiesce. Thought hums along doing what it does and we don’t question it. We just assume that it must be true and inevitable. But even a few minutes of attention clarifies that thought is nowhere near as reliable or structured as it seems. In fact, it’s kind of a mess.
We don’t have to do anything about this other than see it. If we can see it, then it will naturally be undone. It’s odd but true: part of the reason that thought (or the ego, if you like) gets away with so much is because we just don’t see it. In the light of attention, it ceases to function because it is a kind of darkness and in light of any kind, it ceases to exist.
The temptation is always to look for more than what is. We become attentive, and life clarifies a little, and we start to look for something additional: a little rainbow, a little angel, a little nudge from Jesus. When we are looking for more, we are no longer looking at what is, and then the default mode kicks back in. Wanting more is what caused Lucifer’s fall from Heaven: we can appreciate the symbolism.
But we are not bad and Heaven’s doors – I am speaking metaphorically – never close. Picture a sign above them: “Open twenty four seven, even on Christmas.” When we see that we are distracted, we are seeing again, and thus we are no longer distracted. Heaven is a state of awareness devoid of a wish it be anything else. When you fall, you return by virtue of attention: and you see that you are still there. It is as if something goes on, even when we are not giving attention to it.
Most spiritual paths and traditions eventually lead one to this juncture, however articulated: attention reveals that there is no separation between the observer and the observed. Again, to get hung up on the articulation is to miss the point. The point is that you are not separate from truth, life, love, God. This is a plain, simple truth. We can apprehend it with our natural intelligence. Common sense can be very helpful. It turns out we know what to do, which is why we are so good at not doing it.
So the point more and more is just to get into that space of attentiveness because there, everything pretty much takes care of itself. We know what to do and how to act.
Say that we are climbing a mountain and the trail becomes hard to follow. We come to a post with twenty signs nailed to it. Nineteen are marked with lines and squiggles that mean nothing to us. One reads “trail to summit marked with orange circles.” We follow its directive and, lo and behold, arrive at the summit.
Thus we say of the sign that pointed the way: “that is the one true sign.”
We all do this, often without noticing. Don’t kid yourself that you’re the one who wouldn’t do it. The best we can hope for is to notice when we do it – as it happens or soon after – and then update our belief system accordingly (more on this anon).
What should we actually say of the sign? We might say something like: “for me, that was the most helpful sign. I can’t speak to the others because I didn’t understand them.”
Not understanding things inheres in the human experience. There are gaps in all our knowledge – collectively and individually. Since we can’t know everything, we have to delegate – let neuroscientists know about the brain, auto mechanics about car engines, et cetera.
But if our ignorance hurts others – that is, if we weaponize it, then we have an obligation to inform ourselves. People have died painful deaths for not agreeing that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It’s important to realize that we could have been the ones who did the killing and felt their actions were mete and just, and then not do that.
We need to interact more effectively with ignorance. It is not an error to defer to a brain surgeon when it comes to a tumor in our skull. It is an error to assert that “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life” when there are obviously so many other ways.
In the analogy of the mountain trail and its signs, how might we update our ignorance?
Well, we might gaze about the summit. We might notice that we share it with folks who do not read or speak English. Thus, we can infer that some of the signs we did not personally understand were nevertheless accurate for some people.
We could also study language. Even a cursory review would clarify that some of the signs we didn’t personally comprehend said more or less the same exact thing as our sign. If we can say this of ten of the twenty signs, perhaps we can infer it is true of the balance as well.
We might also infer from the fact that somebody put up twenty signs – including one that was helpful in our specific cognitive, perceptual and cultural context – that it is more likely than not they were trying to help as many people as possible. The sign-maker was trying to optimize her helpfulness.
All of these actions would help undo our allegiance to “our” sign. All of them would nudge us in the direction of understanding concepts in terms of “helpful” and “unhelpful,” rather than merely “right” or “wrong.”
The foregoing paragraphs emphasize two ideas.
First, it is wise not to become overly attached to our concepts. They are not “right” or “wrong” so much as “helpful” or “not helpful.” They are pointers, and pointers are never that to which they point. And that to which they point is always more complex and variable than what the pointer can possibly indicate.
This is true whether we are talking about A Course in Miracles or Christan Science or Zen Buddhism or Zoroastrianism or Jungian psychotherapy or crystal healing.
Second, our concepts are tools. Their job is to help us do things – like feed the poor, shelter the homeless, nurture bees, minimize waste, resolve conflict peacefully, bake bread, make art, et cetera. They are good to the extent they are helpful. To the extent they are not, then they should be discarded.
A tool can be very handy for a given job but completely irrelevant for subsequent jobs. For example, a hammer will help me build a horse barn, but it will not help me groom the horse. A saw will help me trim deadfall branches into fence posts, but it will not help me knead bread.
I might have a favorite saw or hammer – one my Dad gave me, say, as his Dad did before him – but it’s still just a saw or hammer. Lots of folks have them, and most of them will do the job as effectively as the one I’ve got.
In other words, the way I feel about my tool won’t make it work better or worse. Two plus two is not five just because I shout “five” with blazing passion, or because my father said it was “five” on his deathbed, or because that’s what the high priests say it is.
Is there another way to be in relationship with concepts? Our default mode is to equate them with truths and then defend them. But perhaps there is another way, one that accepts them conditionally, as subject to inquiry.
That is, rather than say the sign that got us to the summit is THE SIGN we might do something like the following:
1. Acknowledge the tendency to enshrine the concept (our sign is THE SIGN);
2. Acknowledge how this enshrinement promotes a need to defend the sign against other signs, and against those for whom another sign was THE SIGN;
3. Gather evidence;
4. Evaluate the evidence;
5. Talk to folks in order to broaden the inquiry and ensure we are fairly evluating the evidence; and then
6. Either accept the concept, update the concept, or discard the concept precisely as the previous 5 steps direct us.
Concepts – like all tools – need to be effective. Effectiveness can be measured. It is tangible. Do the concepts make us smarter? Gentler? More inclined to help others rather than hurt or stymie them?
It is helpful to see that the apparently unified world we perceive – and in which we do all our living and loving – conforms to the observer that we are. It does not include what we cannot perceive or cognize; what we perceive and cognize is constrained by the organism we are.
These constraints are not with creative effect, however. In essence, the distinctions they make are the world that we perceive, engage with, respond to, et cetera. It’s a bit like (but not precisely like) tennis: the boundaries that make the court, and the net that divides and elevates it are what make the game possible. Absent those constraints, tennis would not exist.
Given this, any reference to the Whole or the All or the Truth or the Source or even simply to Reality reflects a fundamental confusion. There is such a thing as the whole unity an observer perceives, but it is only “whole” relative to the observer itself. And since the observer is always changing, then the relative whole is as well.
We cannot escape this fact! We cannot be other than the observer we are – we can’t see the world the way a butterfly does, or hear it the way a dog does, or live on it the way a sunflower does. But it is possible to believe that we can escape or even have escaped this fact. Indeed, most of us live in that belief all the time. In a way, it is the default mode for human observers
If we give careful attention to the experience we are having, we might notice that it includes – as an underlying, apparently built-in presumption – that it is real, reliable, trustworthy, et cetera. We can describe it, measure it, make predictions about what will happen if we do this or that, and so forth. It is reliable.
This reliability tends to support the notion that what we perceive is in fact the real world, faithfully rendered via perception and cognition in order that we might effectively and meaningfully engage with it. Evolution designed us accordingly. To suggest otherwise is counter-intuitive.
But what if that premise – that perception reveals the one true external world – is wrong?
That an observer’s perception and cognition should be functional – effectively functional, complexly functional – is no surprise. How else would an organism survive? Yet to conflate that functionality with veridicality – i.e., with truthfulness – may not be justified.
Chris Fields (in conjuction with Donald Hoffman, Chetan Prakash and Manish Singh) has argued extensively and persuasively that there is ample evidence undermining the traditional notion that an observer’s perception recreates a faithful model of an external observed world.
. . . the classical notion of an observer-independent “objective” reality comprising spatially-bounded, time-persistent “ordinary objects” and well-defined local causal processes must simply be abandoned.
This builds on Hoffman’s notion that absolute reality as such is naturally foreclosed to the human organism. What human observers perceive are simply descriptions designed to facilitate helpful local response to local phenomena. They are highly functional user-generated interfaces that allow us to survive and reproduce.
Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A snake is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.
Assume for a moment that Fields and Hoffman et al are correct: that we are observers whose capacity for observation is not about fidelity to Truth – not about reality – but rather about what works in order to maximize organismic survivability.
What does that do to our sense of spiritual searching? Of self-inquiry? Especially if that search/inquiry includes – subtly, subconsciously or otherwise – the notion that we are making contact with reality? Encountering Truth? Becoming one with God or the Cosmos or Life?
There are no “right” answers to these questions, in the sense that there is a “right” answer to “who won the 2013 world series?” Indeed, perhaps the most helpful aspect of these questions is simply the way they redirect our attention away from supposedly dispositive answers and back to experience itself.
That is, rather than assume that there is some supernatural entity or arcane lore or metaphysical law, the acquisition of which will ensure our entry into a state preferable to our current one, we can simply begin to give attention to the experience we are having right now.
It is nontrivial – it’s actually kind of incredible – to realize that when one is eating a pancake they are not climbing a mountain. I don’t mean the intellectual realization that we can’t do two things at once; I mean the literal experience of being present to experience, as it is happening. It is the realization that there is always only this: this this. This very this.
Really, we are simply nudging our interior sense of certainty askew a bit. We are just looking into experience and seeing what it is, what it’s like, what it includes, doesn’t include, et cetera. What happens when we do this? It is a kind of happiness to discover the answer.
One of things that’s hard about these questions of consciousness is that we are ostensibly very close to the evidence. We are conscious. We are having the experience of consciousness. Why should we listen to anybody else? What could they tell us that we don’t already know by virtue of our very experience?
If I am eating a peanut butter sandwich, and somebody says “peanut butter sandwiches taste bad,” I am probably going to ignore them. Since I have all the evidence I need, why listen to anybody else?
Say that somebody comes along and says, “peanut butter sandwiches are bad for you because they have too many carbohydrates.” That’s different. Do I actually know how many carbs are in two slices of bread and some peanut butter? If I don’t, can I get with relative ease?
In this case, I am probably still going to ignore the other opinion. It will take a little time and effort, but I can get the evidence myself.
But that still leaves the question of whether those carbs are good for me. That’s trickier yet. I’m probably going to need to read up on that. What’s the latest research on carbs? What other issues are entailed? What is my confidence level in the material and my understanding of it?
If the person telling me peanut butter sandwiches aren’t healthy is a licensed nutritionist, I might skip the research and trust them. If they’re a professional clown, then maybe not.
But hopefully, if I don’t know the answer to the question, then I will admit that and take steps to either learn the answer or find an expert I trust to give me the answer.
Generally, evidence trumps experts. Say I hire a woodcutter to help me cut firewood. She says “those six maple trees will produce twelve cords of wood.” We cut them down, split and stack them and end up with . . . nine cords. In this case, the evidence has rendered the expert’s opinion null. I don’t need it – I’ve got the evidence right here.
All of this nudges us in the direction of trusting ourselves when it comes to consciousness. We can’t be in greater proximity to the evidence!
Trusting ourselves is fine so far as it goes. The question is how far it goes.
Say a doctor shows me an MRI of my brain and says, “that looks like a tumor. We’ll need to do some more tests.” I tell her, “actually I feel fine. Haven’t had a headache in weeks. More tests aren’t necessary.”
In that case, I should trust the expert more and my experience less.
Between knowing that this peanut butter sandwich tastes awesome and what’s going on with our brain cells lies a vast spectrum. Somewhere along it we have to say: “I don’t have all the evidence” and then decide how to handle our ignorance. If we really need the evidence to function than we need to either a) get it ourselves or b) find a trustworthy expert or, perhaps ideally, c) some reasonable combination thereof.
The key is to recognize those instances when rather than rely on our own data we should update with new or revised data.
We are inclined to say – or believe others when they say – “consciousness is infinite and eternal” because that’s how it feels to us upon inquiry. But what if we’re wrong? What if “infinite and eternal” is just how it feels – or seems – when observed by a human being?
Most of us, when asked if we are below average, average, or above average, respond that we’re “above average.” But this is mathematically impossible! Some of us must be wrong.
We overestimate and misunderstand all the time. Why should our understanding of consciousness be any different?